web analytics
March 5, 2015 / 14 Adar , 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post


Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

May The Brain Death ‘Controversy’ Die A Dignified Death


There has been a bizarre, unfortunate and hurtful conversation taking place in the public domain (including every imaginable forum) regarding the halachic viewpoint on brain death.

This has undoubtedly been spurred by a comprehensive halachic work of great effort and significance that was recently published through the Rabbinical Council of America’s Va’ad Halacha. Written by wonderful and accomplished talmidei chachamim, it takes its place in our beautiful “yam shel Torah” with many other fine halachic works, including those that strongly disagree with it.

Having cared for patients, been at their bedside as a physician and clergyperson, and sadly at times had to pronounce their death, I think it is very unfortunate that the ensuing debate from this critique has not produced a greater kiddush Hashem. And even more regrettably, that it has engendered the opposite.

It would be arrogant of me, despite my rabbinical position and many years of medical practice, to try to elucidate the halachic questions and answers regarding brain death. Other, much more qualified individuals (no false modesty) have already done so. Suffice to say, to me, brain death is a very clear medical and halachic issue. Great gedolim have paskened on each side of this controversy.

This controversy does not, and cannot, have a simple scientific resolution, despite what anyone may claim. Science does not and cannot answer metaphysical questions. The definition of death according to science is, however, open for debate and can change by popular vote of the appropriate academies or respective legislative bodies.

On the other hand, halacha is immutable, although its ramifications, based upon the available facts, may change. The “halacha lema’aseh” may in fact be different today than years ago for many issues, because of technological advances and/or better understanding of the problem. Halachic analysis requires taking the best scientific evidence available and using the halachic process to provide “lema’aseh” answers to real questions posed.

Based on this unbiased straightforward approach, indeed the only possible current resolution to the brain death halachic controversy is “Ailu ve’ailu divrei Elokim chaim.” There simply is no overriding clear-cut halachic reaction that all gedolim agree is the correct lema’aseh response. And that is the one incontrovertible fact that seems to be forgotten amid all the tumult. Therefore it is very sad for me to see this beis midrash “controversy” itself take on a life of its own.

Why have I spoken up now? It is extremely difficult for me to remain silent when I see gedolim disparaged in the lay press (or worse, by other rabbis and talmidei chachamim) because of a presumed lack of either halachic or medical knowledge. None of the eminent poskim quoted on either side of this controversy would ever pasken a shailah without speaking with knowledgeable physicians who actually treat and care for such patients.

A posek must obtain state of the art medical information, upon which he then paskens. “Da’as Torah” alone does not give a rav the right to pasken something he does not understand or have knowledge about – and, in fact, no gadol would ever conceive of doing so. I have heard from my rebbeim that the Rav (HaRav Y.D. Soloveitchik, zt” l) took a watch apart in shiur one day to understand its physical workings so he could pasken a shailah regarding its use on Shabbos. People forget that physicians disagree, and our understanding of science is not foolproof. Contradictory medical opinions will lead to different piskei halacha.

However, strong differences of opinion should never culminate in strong language against individuals, regardless of how wrong one believes their position to be. BeisShammai and Beis Hillel argued about even greater practical questions of their day – questions that affected the core of Jewish life – yet I defy anyone to find a single offensive personal castigation by these “ba’alei machlokes” against another individual. Their machlokes was never personal; it was a machlokes lesheim shamayim, not a machlokes lesheim personal aggrandizement or secondary gain.

Not every person (or rav) is entitled to a halachic opinion. Having knowledge in one area of science or halacha does not automatically provide expertise in another area. How much more so (kal va’chomer), then, the need for individuals to refrain from proffering opinions on matters about which they are not qualified. And the vast majority of Jews are simply not qualified to render a halachic opinion on brain death.

About the Author: Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, MD, is president/CEO and professor of medicine at St. Joseph Hospital in Bethpage, New York, and assistant rabbi at Congregation Anshei Chesed and the Young Israel of Woodmere.A magid shiurfor many years and an internationally popular lecturer on medical ethics and other halachic issues, he is the author of "Visiting the Sick" (ArtScroll) and "Women in the Talmud."


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “May The Brain Death ‘Controversy’ Die A Dignified Death”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
US Secretary of State John Kerry with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier before P5+1 talks. (Nov. 22, 2014.)
Fears Over US Iran Deal Trigger Mideast Nuclear Race, Saudi-South Korea Deal
Latest Indepth Stories
Ron Prosor

Values at the very heart of the UN are threatened by extremist ideologies targeting our way of life

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Anti-Semitism today focuses on Israel and the quest to delegitimize it.

Ballots for elections "made in Samaria."

Any Jew who ties his fate to Israel should be able to vote in Israel’s elections-even before aliyah

A young Moshe Meir Weiss introduces his mother, Mrs. Agnes Weiss Goldman, to Rav Moshe in 1979.

There were no airs about him. Rav Moshe was affectionately known as the Gaon of Normalcy.

Israel’s full sovereignty over a united Jerusalem is the only path for true peace in the region.

Just like Moses and Aaron, Mordechai decides to ruin the party…

The president has made clear – I can’t state this more firmly – the policy is Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.

Obama has an apparent inability to understand Islam in particular and Mid-East culture in general

Pesach is a Torah-based holiday whose fundamental observances are rooted in Torah law; Purim is a rabbinic holiday whose laws and customs are grounded in the rabbinic tradition.

In honor of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s successful speech before Congress.

Mr. Spock conveys a message with painfully stark relevance to our world today, especially in the context of PM Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

Obama created the “partisan politics” by asking Dem. party members to avoid Bibi and his address

Enough is enough. The Jewish community has a big tent, but the NIF should have no place in it.

I vote for the right and get left-wing policy. Every. Frigging. Time.

More Articles from Rabbi Dr. Aaron E. Glatt

There has been a bizarre, unfortunate and hurtful conversation taking place in the public domain (including every imaginable forum) regarding the halachic viewpoint on brain death.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/may-the-brain-death-controversy-die-a-dignified-death/2011/02/02/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: